By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On April 2, 2017, Security Forces (SFs) killed three militants of the United Kukigram Defence Army (UKDA) in an encounter at Jullian village under the Manza Police Station of Karbi Anglong District in Assam. Another militant was injured during the encounter.
On March 30, 2017, two militants of the I.K. Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-IKS), identified as Lukash Narzary aka Langfa and David Islary, were killed during an encounter with SFs at Simlagri under the Amguri Police Station in the Chirang District of Assam. One INSAS Rifle with 10 rounds of live ammunition, one 7.65 mm revolver with three rounds of ammunition and one Chinese grenade were recovered.
On March 17, 2017, the dead body of a non-local civilian, identified as Ajay Kumar Shahu, was recovered from the Langol Games Village in the Imphal West District of Manipur. Later, on March 23, 2017, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), in a statement issued to the Press, claimed that Shahu was eliminated, not because he was a non-Manipuri, but for his ‘immoral activities’.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), there have been 28 insurgency-related fatalities (10 civilians, three SF personnel, 15 militants) in India’s Northeast in the current year (data till April 14, 2017) as compared to 53 such fatalities (18 civilians, three SF personnel, 32 militants) recorded in the region during the corresponding period of 2016. The dip witnessed in level of violence reaffirms the gains registered in 2016.
Through 2016, India’s Northeast accounted for 160 fatalities (61 civilians, 17 SF personnel, 82 militants) as against 273 such fatalities (62 civilians, 49 SF personnel, 162 militants) recorded in 2015. In terms of overall fatalities, 2016 recorded the lowest ever fatalities in the State since 1992 [SATP data for the region is available only since 1992]. A previous low of 246 fatalities was recorded in 2011. Significantly, at the peak of insurgency the region saw 1,696 fatalities in 2000.
The Northeast comprises eight states: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam , Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. Barring Sikkim which has had no insurgency in its history, all the others have seen enduring movements of armed violence, though their intensity and dispersal have varied across States and across time. With the exception of Assam, overall fatalities declined in all these States in 2016. In Assam, the death toll increased from 59 in 2015 to 86 in 2016. As in 2015, Tripura did not record a single fatality in 2016.
Year 2016 also recorded the lowest number of civilian fatalities (61) registered in the region since 1992. The previous lowest of 62 was recorded in 2015 and thus the declining trend continued. Fatalities in this category have been rising since 2011, with 79 civilians killed that year, as against 77 in 2010; rising to 90 in 2012 and further to 95 in 2013, to a massive 245 in 2014. At the peak of multiple insurgencies in the region, 946 civilian fatalities were recorded in 2000.
In 2016, civilian fatalities were not recorded in three States – Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Tripura, as against two such States in 2015 – Mizoram and Tripura. Among the States from where civilian fatalities were reported in 2016, with the exception of Assam, which registered a significant increase from 10 to 33, all the other States registered a fall in civilian fatalities.
The number of Districts from where fatalities were reported in 2016 stood at 31, as against 40 in 2015. The seven troubled States of the Northeast (excluding Sikkim) have a total of 108 Districts.
Other parameters of violence also witnessed improvements. As against 16 major incidents (involving three or more fatalities) resulting in 82 deaths in 2015, there were 10 such incidents resulting in 50 deaths in 2016. The number of explosions and resultant fatalities also recorded a decline, from 69 incidents and 14 killed in 2015, to 65 incidents and eight killed in 2016.
The SF:militant kill ratio for 2016 worked out at 1:4.76 against the militants, significantly better than 2015, at 1:2.16. 106 militant fatalities at the hands of SFs were recorded in 2015, out of a total of 162 killed; with the remaining 56 killed in factional clashes. Out of 82 militants killed in 2016, one was killed in a factional clash, while SFs eliminated the remaining 81.
Despite these gains, numerous challenges remain in a region that has seen cyclical surges and recessions in the levels of violence over decades. Never since 1992 have overall fatalities registered a decline, on year on year basis, for more than three consecutive years. This positive trend was achieved twice – between 2004 and 2006; and between 2009 and 2011. Fatalities increased for five consecutive years between 1993 and 1997, the longest span of continuously rising fatalities.
The region remains home to 13 of the 39 terrorist formations banned by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) as on November 19, 2015. According to the SATP database, apart from these 13 proscribed terror outfits, there are another 139 militant outfits that have operated in the region at one point of time or another. These include 19 militant formations which are still active; 97 that operated in the past but have seized operations; and another 23 which are at various stages of peace talks with the Government.
Reports also indicate that many of the militant groups in the region continue to operate in unison to fight jointly for the ‘sovereignty’ of their respective imagined states. After the November 19, 2016, attack at Pengaree near Digboi, Tinsukia District, Assam, in which three SF personnel were killed, the United Liberation Front of Asom – Independent (ULFA-I) faction claimed that this was a “joint operation” carried out by the its cadres and four members of the Manipur-based Coordination Committee (CorCom) – comprising the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF, the political wing of the People’s Liberation Army, PLA), UNLF, People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), and the progressive faction of PREPAK (PREPAK-Pro). The other two members of the CorCom, a conglomerate of six Manipur Valley-based militant outfits formed in July 2011, are the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) and the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL). The same group also carried out a second attack on the Army in the Chandel District of Manipur on November 26, 2016, and injured five SF personnel. The attacks, codenamed ‘Operation Barak’, were the first instance of Meitei groups carrying out strikes in Assam, and of ULFA-I operating in Manipur. On December 3, 2016, the ‘commander-in-chief’ of ULFA-I, Paresh Baruah, clarified that “Operation Barak, named after the Barak River that flows from Manipur to Assam, is a symbol of friendship between the two States.”
Earlier, on April 17, 2015, the Khaplang faction of NSCN (NSCN-K) joined hands with three of the most active terror outfits in the Northeast: ULFA-I; NDFB-IKS; and Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), to form the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWESEA). The UNLFWESEA, headed by S.S. Khaplang, was formed with the objective of setting up a ‘northeast government-in-exile’, reportedly to be based in Myanmar. Another two outfits, the Tripura-based National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and the Assam based People’s Democratic Council of Karbi-Longri (PDCK) have also associated with UNLFWESA.
Despite the ‘historic accord, signed between the Government of India (GoI) and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland–Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) on August 3, 2015, to resolve the ‘mother of all insurgencies’ in the region, the Naga insurgency, the process has, so far, failed to bring the concerned parties to an agreeable settlement. The Naga problem retains the potential to derail the process of deepening peace in the region. Media reports indicate that numerous ambiguities remain in the ‘framework agreement’, making progress difficult. The NSCN-IM leadership is showing increasing signs of desperation, making allegations against the Union Government. In a media interview published on April 23, 2017, for instance, NSCN-IM ‘commander-in-chief’ Phunting Shimrang accused the Union Government of delaying the final settlement of the Naga issue and warned “even if only 30 to 100 people are left, we will start (the movement again)… The Indian Army may be the biggest force in the world, but we are not scared. We will fight them.”
Islamist terror groups backed by Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), have been a challenge for peace in the region, though their ‘effectiveness’ has suffered over a period. Nevertheless, the threat exists. On July 24, 2016, Union Minister of State (MoS) for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju thus observed,
Assam and the entire northeast are sensitive places. The region shares a major portion of the international border and so its vulnerability is high. It is also prone to jihadi activities. Steps have been taken and arrangements made to ensure the region’s safety.
In the meantime, several other issues with a potential to undermine peace in the region remain unaddressed. Prominent among these are the issue of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 that has created troubles in Assam and Tripura; the decision to carve out new Districts from the existing nine districts in Manipur that had a cascading impact on the lives of people in the State as a result of a 139-day blockade; and the lingering issue repatriation of displaced Bru (Reang) refugees from Tripura. The Manipur blockade that began on November 1, 2016, ended with tripartite talks between the Centre, the Manipur Government and the United Naga Council (UNC) on March 19, 2017.
Crucially, the economic disparity that has existed in the region for long because of decades of neglect on the part of successive regimes, remains a major problem. Though the Government has now initiated some steps to address these disparities, the desired pace of development is far from being achieved. Indeed, of the 761 North Eastern Council (NEC) funded projects, with an approved cost of INR 7484.71 crores [INR 74.84 billion], currently under implementations, only 35 projects costing INR 554.40 crores [5.54 billion], sanctioned at different times, have been completed during the financial year 2016-17.
Peace in the region has also been compromised by its extensive, geographically challenging and troubled international borders, with continuous infiltration across a wide range of points and a multiplicity of relative safe havens still in existence, facilitating militant activities. All seven insurgency affected states share international border with one or more of four countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, and Myanmar – all of which have, at some stage, provided refuge to militants operating in India’s Northeast, including their top leadership. While the problem with Bhutan and Bangladesh is by no measure as severe as it once was, Myanmar and China remain a significant problem. L.R. Bishnoi, Additional Director General of Police, Assam, observed, on January 10, 2017, “Chinese intelligences have been helping, directly or indirectly various insurgent groups of the North-eastern region that have their bases and hideouts inside Myanmar. These groups are under increasing influence of the Chinese agencies, and ULFA [ULFA-I] leader Paresh Barua is among those top leaders who have been in regular touch with the Chinese liaison office in Ruili on the China-Myanmar border.” According to reports, Paresh Barua has set up a base in Ruili, a Chinese town along the China-Myanmar border.
Securing the border is, consequently, of paramount importance. The Government has taken several steps in this direction. Border Outposts (BOPs) along the land border and floating BOPs in riverine segments have been established and strengthened periodically. Border guarding Forces are on round-the-clock surveillance, patrolling and laying nakas (checkposts) all along the land border. In the riverine segments, patrolling is done by water crafts/speed boats. Further, on November 22, 2016, the Government informed Parliament:
The total sanctioned length of fence along Indo-Bangladesh Border is 3326 km [kilometers], out of which 2731 km has been completed. The ongoing fence work along the complete Indo-Bangladesh border is targeted for completion by March 2019. Further, in the stretches in which site is not available, fence work will be completed in three years from the date of availability of site… A total of 9.12 km fencing along Indo-Myanmar Border in Moreh Sector (between Border Pillars 79-81), Manipur, was approved by Ministry and accordingly Phase-I construction of fencing commenced in the year 2010. The construction of the fence was however temporarily halted on 21.12.2013. At the time of stopping of work only around 3.47 km of border fencing work was completed. No progress on the work has been taken place thereafter. Construction of Border fencing of total length of 35.90 km along the Indo Bhutan Border has been approved by the Government. There is no fencing on Indo-China Border.
Clearly, a great deal remains to be done to make the border impenetrable.
At a time when the violence in the region is at its lowest, there are tremendous opportunities for a consolidation of governance, security and peace in India’s Northeast.
* Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management